“If both held their courses they would collide in nine seconds, and catastrophe would be inevitable” according to the voiceover which opens Sogo Ishii’s ethereal psychodrama Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Yume no Ginga) though his words might as easily apply to the protagonist and her opposing number as a bus and a train locked as they are into a fateful cycle of love and death. Ishii had made his name in the ‘80s for a series of frenetic punk films such as Burst City and The Crazy Family yet adapted from the novel by Kyusaku Yumeno, Labyrinth of Dreams adopts the language of golden age cinema to tell a punk story as a young woman searching for freedom, independence, and a more exciting life finds herself drawn towards death in her inexorable desire.
Set sometime in the 1930s, the film opens with a taste of the gothic on a stormy night all mists and confusion as a bus heads towards and then unwisely across a level crossing in front of an oncoming train. “Double suicide or accident?” a newspaper headline asks, as we’ll discover on more than one occasion as this is not an isolated incident either bizarre cosmic coincidence or the work of a mysterious serial killer. The heroine, Tomoko (Rena Komine), had always wanted to become a bus conductress, explaining that they looked so “heroic” in their uniforms but has discovered the reality to be not quite so satisfying. “The female bus conductor only looks good on the surface. We must obey the driver’s orders, put up with all displeasure and work like a slave” she writes in a letter to a friend, Chieko (Kotomi Kyono), telling her in no uncertain terms that she must never become a bus conductress.
To a young woman from the country in the 1930s, such a job must have seemed exciting promising a way out of stultifying small-town life and a path to an independent urban future. It’s this sense of self-possession that Tomoko seems to have been seeking hoping that wearing a uniform even that of a bus conductress would grant her a level of authority she does not really have realising that she is a mere subordinate to the male bus driver and quite literally has no real control over the direction of her life. When she receives a letter from a friend who had also become a bus conductress only to die in a tragic accident explaining that she thinks her fiancé is a bus-based bluebeard rumoured to have seduced and murdered his previous conductresses Tomoko smells not danger but excitement in realising the new handsome driver with a flashy Tokyo haircut who’s just transferred to their station is none other than her friend’s possibly sociopathic former boyfriend.
Fully embracing a sense of the gothic, neither we nor Tomoko can ever be sure if Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano) is a coldblooded killer or merely the projection of a fantasy created by Tomoko’s repressed desires and yearning for a more exciting life. Having encountered him once before sleeping on the railway tracks as a train approached, he becomes to her something like an angel of death and though she believes him to be dangerous she cannot help falling in love with him anyway. Ishii constantly flashes back to deathly images, a pair of shoes abandoned on the rocks or a bunch of drooping lilies while a literal funeral procession eventually boards the bus just before the climactic moments on which Tomoko is in effect staking her life as she and Niitaka each refuse to deviate from their course, a set of railway points and a trapped butterfly added to the film’s rich symbolic imagery.
A policeman at the film’s conclusion makes a point of asking Chieko if Tomoko is known to be a habitual liar having found no evidence that Niitaka deliberately caused the deaths of his previous conductresses even if it seems unlikely that he is simply the victim of unhappy coincidence. “My life was miserable and lonely,” Tomoko writes, “but remember me as the one who wrestled her fate at the end”, staking her life on a “fatal romance” and in a sense overcoming existential dread by staring it down, a deathly desire leading finally to new life. Beautifully lensed in a golden age black and white with occasional onscreen text in the ornate font of the silent movies, Ishii’s ethereal drama freewheels between dreams and reality amid gothic mists and expressionist thunderstorms as it reels towards an inevitable collision. “They haven’t a clue about the truth” Tomoko sighs, perhaps all too aware.